Skip to main content

Coaching Changes A Fact Of NFL Life


Coaching changes, though relatively infrequent, have been a fact of life for the Green Bay Packers for more than 50 years...beginning with the historic departure of team founder Curly Lambeau following the 1949 season.

For the record, the "process" -- the one in which General Manager Ted Thompson is currently immersed to select Mike Sherman's successor as the 14th head coach in the Packers' 86-year history -- is far different than it was the first time there was a changing of the guard.

Today it is a deliberate, detailed and measured process involving, in most cases, a series of scheduled interviews with a variety of candidates over a period of time -- customarily two or three weeks.

When Lambeau left, in contrast, he was essentially breaking new ground. Looking back, it seems clear there was no specific mechanism in place when Lambeau's job security came under serious scrutiny -- for the simple reason that Curly had always been there -- since the team's birth in 1919...and, it then appeared, always would be.

Earl Louis Lambeau was, in essence, "the Green Bay Packers," holding the multiple titles of vice president, general manager and head coach.

Thus, when his contract was about to expire late in the '49 season, it was a matter for the team's entire 30-man board of directors to address. General Manager Lambeau obviously was not going to relieve himself of his coaching duties, even though he was coming off the two worst years in his career -- a 3-9-0 record in 1948 and then en route to a career-low 2-10-0 mark in 1949.

In addition, hovering over the organizational scene at the time was the impression he had lost favor with some of the more prominent members of the board, including longtime former president Lee Joannes, because Lambeau had dismissed the team's veteran publicity director, George W. Calhoun, the man who had called the first meeting of the Packers in 1919 and was considered a co-founder of the team.

It was against this somewhat divisive backdrop that the board convened in the supervisors' room at the Brown County courthouse the evening of November 30, 1949, (the Packers had no official offices of their own at the time) to consider whether to renew Lambeau's contract.

An acrimonious, five-hour meeting ensued, one punctuated by shouting on occasion, before Lambeau emerged by himself to announce to the modest media corps on site that the board had approved of a new, two-year contract for him as vice president, general manager and head coach.

Details of the period immediately following that now distant action remain murky to this day, but it appears there was no specific attempt to have Lambeau formally sign the new document. He thus left for the NFL's annual meeting at Philadelphia in late January (of 1950) without a contract and, formally resigning February 1, 1950, he returned to Green Bay as vice president and head coach of the Chicago Cardinals, ending a 30-year reign highlighted by six world championships and 212 victories.

An improbable scenario next unfolded in the organization's search for a Lambeau replacement.

The Packers, under the leadership of President Emil R. Fischer Sr., startled many of the faithful by settling upon a former Chicago Bear, ex-running back Gene Ronzani, as Curly's successor. The Packers' rivalry with the Bears already was highly contentious and Packers fandom's reaction to the selection thus was mixed, to say the least.

Whatever the case, Ronzani was unable to turn the Packers around. The square-cut Iron Mountain, Mich., native did pull off a major upset early in his baptismal, 1950 season, surprising the heavily favored Bears in Week Three, 31-21, but lost 8 of the next 9 games to finish 3-and-9. He followed with another 3-9 campaign in 1951 before kindling hopes with a 6-6 mark in 1952 (6-4 after 10 games), then was relieved of his duties after starting the '53 season 2-7-1.

Beside himself over losing what he obviously considered the job of a lifetime, Ronzani followed the team to the West Coast for its final two games of the '53 season, boarding the team's train to the San Francisco area and attempting -- without success -- to attend the daily practices.

Awkward as those circumstances may have been, Ronzani subsequently was welcomed back like a member of the family. In fact, he was on the on-field speakers' stage on Sunday afternoon, September 29, 1957 -- along with then Vice President Richard Nixon, NFL Commissioner Bert Bell and Wisconsin Governor Vernon W. Thomson -- for opening day ceremonies dedicating what is now Lambeau Field.

Meanwhile, faced with finding a new head coach for only the second time, the Packers had settled upon Lisle Blackbourn of Marquette University, well known for his commitment to discipline and fundamentals, as Ronzani'successor in 1954.

But he also could not upgrade Green Bay's fortunes, posting a four-year record of 17-31-0 before being dismissed following a 3-9 final season in 1957.

Things, unfortunately, then got worse before they got better when former Ronzani and Blackbourn aide Ray "Scooter" McLean was promoted, becoming the fourth head coach in Packers history. He managed to salvage only one victory from a dismal 1958 season which saw the Packers post the worst record in their history (1-10-1).

Whereupon newly-elected President Dominic Olejniczak and the team's Executive Committee came to the conclusion, under substantial media pressure, that a strong general manager/head coach was needed to take control of the organization's football operations in order to field a consistently competitive team.

Their search led them to Vince Lombardi, then offensive coordinator for the New York Giants, heartily endorsed by coaching icons Paul Brown and George Halas, along with NFL Commissioner Bert Bell, among others. He was named head coach and general manager February 4, 1959, reportedly with a five-year contract at $40,000 per annum.

Virtually anonymous nationally at the time, Lombardi was supremely confident at his introductory press conference in Green Bay. Asked by one member of the media what kind of football team he expected to have, he promptly replied, "You will be proud of it because I will be proud of it."

As history has voluminously recorded, he was right. The erstwhile Fordham "Block of Granite" went on to preside over one of the greatest dynasties in the annals of professional sports, leading the Packers to their first winning record in 12 years that '59 season (7-5), then to five NFL championships in seven years and the first two Super Bowl titles before stepping down as head coach following the '67 season and remaining as general manager.

Lured by the opportunity to have a "piece of the action," something not available to him in Green Bay under the Packers' structure, he was to leave Titletown just a year later to become vice president, head coach and general manager of the Washington Redskins.

In a virtual repeat of his first Green Bay season, Lombardi led the Redskins to their first winning campaign in 15 years (7-5-2) in 1969 and what was to be his last season. Less than a year later (September 3, 1970) he was dead of colon cancer.

While stepping down as head coach in Green Bay, Lombardi had anointed his longtime defensive coordinator, Phil Bengtson, as head coach, giving him a three-year contract. (It was rumored at the time that Lombardi had exceeded his authority in doing so, that it was the exclusive prerogative of the team's Executive Committee to hire the head coach, but there never was official confirmation of the report).

Following a legend and inheriting a team well past its prime, Bengtson had little chance for success. He had one winning season, his second (8-6-0 in 1969), and subsequently resigned under pressure following a 6-8-0 record in '70, closing out his head coaching stint with a 20-21-1 record.

The Packers turned to the college ranks for his successor, Dan Devine, possessor of the third-best winning record (.733) in collegiate circles at the time, as head coach and general manager. Following a 4-8-2 shakedown cruise in 1971, his first season, he appeared to be on his way after winning a division championship in 1972 (10-4-0).

But the record fell to 5-7-2 in 1973 and to 6-8-0 in 1974 and he was relieved of his duties the day after the season ended.

Devine, however, was well prepared for the latter eventuality. Three days earlier, on the Friday prior to his final game as Green Bay's head coach, he had had an aide mail two letters -- one to Seattle presumably declining a head coaching offer from the University of Washington and the other to South Bend, Ind., presumably accepting the head coaching position at Notre Dame.

The following Monday morning, he had his agent in the Packers offices, making sure he would receive his salary for the final year on his Packers coaching contract, then announced, upon resigning, that he was becoming head coach at Notre Dame with a reputed five-year contract.

This time, the Packers returned to one of their own, Bart Starr. A huge fan favorite from his playing days, from which he was only three years removed, he was clearly -- and overwhelmingly -- the people's choice. And hence, that of the Executive Committee, which named him Devine's successor on December 24, 1974.

Though tireless and dedicated, Starr could not duplicate as a coach and general manager the remarkable success he had enjoyed as a player, when he quarterbacked the Packers to nine winning seasons over a 10-year span, punctuated by five world championships and six title game appearances.

After posting a 53-77-3 record over nine seasons, highlighted by a playoff berth in 1982, he was relieved of his duties following an 8-8 finish in 1983.

The Green and Gold next called upon another of yesterday's heroes, perennial all-pro tackle Forrest Gregg, saluted by Lombardi as "the finest player I have ever coached."

Gregg had taken the Cincinnati Bengals to the Super Bowl as a coach before returning to Green Bay. But like Starr before him, he had little success in restoring the Packers to pro football's heights, posting a 25-37-1 record in four seasons (1984-87) before resigning with one year remaining on his contract to become head coach at his alma mater, Southern Methodist University.

Gregg was followed into the head coach's office at 1265 Lombardi Avenue by his former offensive coordinator at Cincinnati, Lindy Infante, who was to have a similar experience, winning only 24 games, 10 of them in a 10-6 season in 1989, while losing 40 in four seasons.

Enter Ron Wolf.

Packers President Bob Harlan, deciding new and aggressive leadership was needed, dismissed Tom Braatz as vice president (November 20, 1991) and hired Wolf one week later (November 27) with sweeping authority to oversee all football operations.

Wolf, in turn, relieved Infante of his duties 25 days later, setting in motion one of the major turnarounds in pro football history.

The rest of the story... is still fresh in the minds of the Packers faithful. How Wolf hired Mike Holmgren, offensive coordinator under the legendary Bill Walsh with the San Francisco 49ers, who led the Packers to seven consecutive winning seasons (1992-1998), six straight playoff appearances, three consecutive division titles and back-to-back Super Bowls.

Then, after Holmgren left to become executive vice president, general manager and head coach of the Seattle Seahawks, and one year in "neutral" (8-8) under Ray Rhodes, Wolf quickly resolved the latter problem, bringing in Mike Sherman, who escorted the Packers to five consecutive winning seasons, three division titles and four straight playoff appearances, a parlay which extended the Packers' streak of .500-or-better football to13 consecutive seasons (1993-2004), the best such record in the NFL for that period.

That memorable span, of course, came to an end in the season just past, the record falling to 4-12, a 14-year low, following the costly injury losses of wide receiver Javon Walker and running back Ahman Green, among others.

Thompson, accordingly, relieved Sherman of his duties the day after the season ended, explaining he felt the need for a "new face" in the head coach's chair.

Continuing an association with the team that is more than 55 years old, Lee Remmel was named the first official Team Historian of the Green Bay Packers in February 2004. The former *Green Bay Press-Gazette reporter and Packers public relations director, Remmel will write regular columns for as part of his new assignment.

In addition to those articles, Remmel will answer fan questions in a monthly Q&A column. To submit a question to Remmel, click here. *

This article has been reproduced in a new format and may be missing content or contain faulty links. Please use the Contact Us link in our site footer to report an issue.

Related Content